Baseball communicates in code. If you don't know the tribal customs, it's all mysterious. If you do, it's usually clear. On Thursday in Milwaukee, nothing official happened. That's the news, but in code. No news means good news for Washington.
To prevent the Expos from coming to Washington, Peter Angelos had to make something spectacular happen in Bud Selig's office on Thursday. This was his one desperate chance to plead his woefully weak case to the game's Executive Council. He had to do something loud or transformative. Something so legally scary or rhetorically brilliant that the sport would stop in its tracks and, after an excruciating, exhaustive multi-year march toward Washington, reverse its course of action completely.
Instead, nothing happened in Milwaukee. No explosion. Angelos shot blanks. Otherwise, baseball would be in internal turmoil now. Bud's apple cart would be upset. Jerry Reinsdorf would be breathing fire. The game's grapevine would be on fire.
Now, all is quiet. Have a nice weekend. See you next week when, pick a day, baseball chooses Washington for the Expos.
That is, if the game even waits that long. According to one source, D.C. officials may receive the confirmation that they desperately want to hear this morning, not long after you read this column. Never has a "we haven't decided yet" from baseball been received with such near euphoria by those on the other end of the drama.
"My grandmother told me, 'Listen to the words in the room. But it's more important to pay attention to the music in the room,' " said Mark Tuohey, head of the Washington Sports Commission. "We love the sound of the music we're hearing.
"The dispositive discussions have now been made to the Executive Council by the relocation committee. Angelos has spoken and it's obvious he has no legal or factual basis for a claim. Now the commissioner has every right to take the time he wants to make a decision. We will wait patiently. But we need to file legislation by next Friday."
Don't underestimate the importance of yesterday's silence to the District. After months of inspiring fear and trembling, Angelos appears not to have a battle plan. After all his bluster, his bluff was called. It looks like he's holding a busted flush.
Meantime, the game's most powerful owners heard the story that Washington has been trying to get across to them for many years. But this time, the pitch was delivered by many of the most respected people inside the sport, not by Washington's ambassadors. All the pertinent details of an excellent $400 million stadium proposal were dropped in the owners' laps. Reinsdorf, the White Sox owner and the game's best student of ballpark deals, did the deepest spade work and found the deal compelling.
After the Executive Council meeting, president Bob DuPuy stepped before the mikes and -- in baseball code -- made three key points which were exactly what Washington's key players wanted to hear.
"The commissioner is CEO of the industry and he has the power to close a deal," said DuPuy. That means Bud has the support of his owners to do whatever he thinks is best for baseball. The noses are counted. Angelos can forget rounding up support from other owners who might, someday, want his vote to help defend their territory. It's all in Bud's hands now.
Since Selig's handpicked relocation committee, including his daughter, his lawyer and his best baseball ally, think that Washington is best for baseball, how on earth can Bud disagree with them, show them up and waste their two years of effort? What kind of commissioner would, out of friendship for Angelos, stand against the dispassionate analysis of his top committee? It would make a travesty of baseball's respect for proper process. And it might attract attention to that antitrust exemption, too.
Next, DuPuy added, that "we could end up with another [Executive Council] meeting, but it will more likely be [ended by] a conference call." Finally, he said: "We're all running out of time [for a decision]. Everybody's on the same time schedule."
Upon hearing DuPuy's comments, one member of the Washington Baseball Club (a potential ownership group) was almost jubilant. "If DuPuy says the commissioner can close a deal unilaterally, do it fast and wrap it up with just a conference call, that means just one thing to me: It's over. Washington has won," said Paul Wolfe, a Williams and Connolly lawyer.
That's certainly how it reads.
As Selig deliberates, or, more likely, gives Angelos a few days to chill out and accept a financial settlement for the good of the game, it's obvious that the commissioner has no logical course except to finish what he's started.
Does anybody think that, in the wake of a firm preference by his relocation committee, that Bud favors Norfolk or Mexico?
Does anybody think that Selig wants to delay an Expos exodus for another year so that he can move the Expos to northern New Jersey and end up fighting a turf war with three owners, rather than just one? The Phillies, Yankees and Mets would all go nuts.
"Someday, Las Vegas will have a team," said a highly placed baseball executive. "But right now, the only place with demographics similar to Washington is northern New Jersey. But it raises all the same problems as D.C. Only much worse."
Finally, neither baseball's owners nor its union have any desire whatsoever to contract the Expos after the correct collective bargaining agreement runs out. "No, no, nobody has an appetite for that," said one of the game's highest executives.
Baseball has said repeatedly that the Expos are going to be relocated for '05. But this time baseball is finally determined to meet its own deadline. Montreal's losses, inflicted on the other 29 owners, are too steep. And the promise of $700-million-plus windfall from Washington -- combining the cost of a ballpark and the likely purchase price of the Expos -- became too sweet.
As the last piece of the puzzle, a deadline was finally reached that both sides recognized was inflexible. Baseball understands that, for political and logistical reasons, the District needs an answer quickly. The city has been flexible on many things. In return, it has only asked -- demanded, actually -- one thing: a decent six-month period to get its plans passed by the city council at a normal pace and then get RFK Stadium ready for Opening Day.
The game understands that three new anti-baseball city councilmen will probably take office after Jan. 1. The sport also realizes that by accepting the District's M Street stadium site in a blighted, low population area that desperately needs urban renewal, it maximizes the odds that Mayor Anthony Williams can maintain his current support for such an expensive project. If there's one thing that baseball grasps and respects, it's the hardball of realpolitik.
Sherlock Holmes once solved the mystery of "the dog that didn't bark." Baseball now presents us with the case of the Orioles owner who didn't bite. The solution to the problem is elementary: The Expos are coming to Washington.